I hope you have some Thanksgiving leftovers, because you’ll need them for this post. Last time we were in Daniel 8, we sorted out the geography of Daniel’s vision. This time around, we’ll sort out the history behind the vision (you might want to review the vision here). Go get those turkey leftovers before you jump on this dizzying ride.

Cyrus is the main historical character associated with the two-horned ram in Daniel’s vision. (You might recognize Cyrus’s name because he is the king who, in 539 BC, issued the decree that allowed the Jews in exile to return to their homeland and rebuild the temple.) Cyrus came to power in Persia when it was a relatively small vassal state of the Median empire. After nine years on the throne, he rebelled and defeated Median king Astyages (550 BC), swallowing up the once formidable Medes into the joint empire of Medo-Persia. Under Cyrus and his successors, the Medo-Persian ram extended its empire westward, northward, and southward. (The empire also extended eastward, but the ram of Daniel’s vision did not charge east for reasons scholars debate.)

The goat with its large single horn represents Alexander the Great, born in 356 BC to the great warrior, Philip II of Macedon. Macedon had been a backwater Balkan kingdom until Philip came to power, reorganized the army, and conquered neighboring Greek city states. Philip intended to continue his expansion with an invasion of long-time enemy, Persia, but his assassination in 336 BC left his kingdom and dreams of world domination in the hands of an ambitious twenty-year-old Alexander. Within two years, Alexander was at Persia’s gate, beginning a three-year string of victories over Darius III that left the young Macedonian the ruler of an empire stretching from Greece to India.

At the height of his power, thirty-two-year-old Alexander succumbed to sudden illness and died in 323 BC. With no viable heir, his massive empire was left to squabbling generals and eventually divided among four of them, commonly referred to as the Diadochi—the “successors.” Macedonia went to Cassander; Thrace and Asia Minor to Lysimachus; Babylon and Syria to Seleucus; and Egypt to Ptolemy. Each of these generals was prominent in his own right, but the vision and interpretation pass them and 150 years of history without comment. The greater interest lies in the eighth ruler of the Seleucid dynasty, the little horn that almost all scholars recognize as Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175–164 BC). Antiochus became “one of [history’s] truly flamboyant characters,” naming himself “God Manifest” (Epiphanes) and minting his face on coins that should have featured Zeus.[1]

In the kind of wily behavior that would characterize his reign, Antiochus had maneuvered his way to the throne in place of the rightful heir, his nephew Demetrius. Once there, he flexed his military muscle toward the south (Egypt), the east (Parthia), and “the Beautiful Land.”

The latter part of his reign was marked by great hostility toward “the Beautiful Land”—the Jews, their temple, and their way of life. At least three factors contributed to this hostility and persecution. First, Antiochus needed money to pay an inherited debt. The temple coffers, taxes, and even bribes from prominent Jews would all help his bottom line. Second, cultural and religious tensions among the Jews made Judea a tinderbox. Some wanted to adopt Hellenistic ways, while others were intent on maintaining Jewish distinctives. Like his Seleucid predecessors, Antiochus encouraged the spread of Greek culture, and Jews interested in Hellenistic reform listened to his smooth talk, curried his favor with bribery, and stepped into his noose. Meanwhile, conservative Jews opposed anything that threatened their Jewish identity. A final factor in Antiochus’s treatment of the Jews was his ego, which suffered grievous humiliation in a campaign against Roman-allied Egypt in 168 BC. A battered Antiochus decided to flex his bruised muscles against something he could annihilate: Judaism.

In earlier exploits, Antiochus had slaughtered Jews and plundered the temple, but in 167 BC he made Judaism a crime. His enforcers turned the temple into a pagan shrine, massacred Jerusalemites, and burned much of the city. Gentile priests killed pigs and other unclean animals in the temple precincts to offer as sacrifices to Zeus; circumcision was outlawed; festivals and Sabbath were forbidden; sacred scrolls were burned and their owners killed. Commanded to worship Zeus or die, many Jews became martyrs. This period of suffering lasted roughly six years (i.e., 2300 days) if its beginning was 170 BC when Jewish high priest Onias III was assassinated and its end was the rededication of the temple in 164 BC after the Maccabean revolt. (Interpreters who think 2300 represents half as many days adjust the beginning of persecution to Antiochus’s defeat in Egypt [167 BC].)

Gabriel’s interpretation comes to an end with Antiochus’s destruction “not by human power” (8:25). This likely refers to the fact that the Seleucid king did not die by enemy hand in battle. Rather, he died by accident or illness. Gabriel’s words also indicated that Antiochus’s days were in God’s hand, and when he decreed it, the oppressor would be finished.

This is a lot to take in. Trust me, I know. Just wait til we get to chapter 11… Here’s a bullet point recap:

  • Two-horned ram: Medes and Persians, Cyrus
  • One-horned goat: Greece
  • Single horn: Alexander the Great
  • Four horns: Diadochi – Alexander’s four generals, two of which we care about: Seleucus (Syria) and Ptolemy (Egypt)
  • Nasty little horn: Antiochus IV Epiphanes, Seleucid king—the name to take away from this chapter.

If you’ve made it to the end of this post, go reward yourself with some leftover pumpkin pie. 🙂

[1] Tomasino, Judaism Before Jesus, 128.

* This entry is excerpted and adapted from my final draft of Daniel in the Story of God Commentary series (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016?), because writing this history once is bad enough…

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